Thursday, 15 October 2020

Culture Clash, Tribes, and why Remote Working is Creating Stress

Thousands of years ago, we lived in tribes. Our friends and family were in that tribe. We had occasional contact with other tribes, for example to trade. Our tribe had a leader, and a leadership hierarchy. Everyone knew where they were in that hierarchy. Everyone was safe.

Human beings are a social animal, but not like sheep. Sheep have no hierarchy, and no rituals. Human beings are ritualistic, like cats and chimpanzees. If you have more than one cat in your house, you'll know that they engage in rituals. They have leadership contests. They have a 'pecking order'. They innately understand the protection conferred by a social hierarchy. At times of danger, don't hold an election.

Human beings also have leadership contests. You can see them in every workplace. They work differently for men and women, because alpha males and alpha females use different methods for gaining power, securing resources and protecting their tribes.

You're probably starting to relate all of this to your own workplace, or workplaces you have known.

None of this is a problem when we live in one tribe. We know our place in the pecking order. We know how to stay safe. We know the rules.

We live in a world where we no longer live in a single tribe. We have created artificial, arbitrary tribes which we call schools and corporations and committees and clubs. These are organised hierarchically because human beings have evolved around hierarchical social structures. Many people call for reform, for flat structures, for government by consensus. I don't know that the people 'at the top' ever call for such reform.

The difficulties that we face in such social hierarchies are not caused by the hierarchy, they are caused by the multiple hierarchies that we have created. You wake up in the morning and follow your routine for the day, and you are in your home tribe. Then you go to school or work, and you have to fit into a different tribe. You might go from being alpha female to being down at the bottom of the power structure.

Since you're more likely to be working from home at the moment, you're more likely to be in your alpha role, more of the time. And what happens when you join your online team meeting?

Or, you might feel that you're second or third in command in your own tribe, and when you get to work you're thrust into the alpha male role. This adaptation takes time, and it creates stress.

Stress is the result of opposing forces acting upon a body. At home, one set of rules and rituals pull you in one direction. At work, a different set of rules and rituals. Different hierarchy, different leadership contests, different ritualistic behaviours evolved to help you figure out where you fit into the tribe. As you travel to and from work, you adapt to that different environment. When you used to commute, if you can remember that far back, you remember it, don't you? That feeling that grew as you approached the office. The relief of closing your own front door. That sense of impending doom that you would start to feel from Sunday afternoon onwards. All signs that you are preparing to adapt to a different set of social rules.

Remote working has crashed these opposing cultures together. Are you at home, at school or at work? Or all three at the same time? That feeling of adapting to a different tribe is now happening many times in each day. Up early for a meeting. Video on? Better get dressed. Then do the washing. Who's using the Internet? I need it for an important call. I need the dining table. OK, you can have the dining table this afternoon. What's for dinner?

The fact that our work and home lives are merging is not the problem. We are entire, whole beings. We can do it all. But what we can't do is follow two different sets of rules at the same time. Imagine if the rules of the road were changing around you as you drove your car. OK, yes, that's Egypt, or India, or many other countries. But in those countries, there are still rules, and people know what to do, even if it seems like mayhem to outsiders.

More and more, we are being forced onto cultural islands. Our main way of coping is to shut out the outside world and protect ourselves. This is not healthy. Human communication is vital for our mental health.

If you're a manager, talk to your team about the rules and their different home tribes. If you're not a manager, demand that your manager talks to their team about the rules and their different home tribes. Understand how you each fit together and complement each other. Don't keep on talking about work, work, work. Talk about your expectations and frustrations. Share your different ways of coping at home.

Above all else, build a tribe that promotes safety over productivity.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Revealing the System

When I model high performers, I compare a selection of high performers with a selection of average, typical performers.
Some people ask why I don't compare the highest performers to the lowest, because surely that would give the greatest contrast and it would be easier to see what the high performers are doing?
This is absolutely not the case, for the reasons I explained in this post (
Another common misconception, probably related to our human tendency for attribution bias, is that we regard individuals as special and different, and erroneously believe that their skills are locked up in their heads. Perhaps they were even born that way. You only have to look at the excitement amongst fans when their favourite sports team signs a new 'star player' from another team. The chosen one! He/She will save us!
Again, not true.
In any system, we will see maximum efficiency when the parts of that system are aligned.
Rocket engines are the shape that they are so that they efficiently match the pressure of the engine with the surrounding air pressure. Rockets that launch astronauts to the Moon or ISS have two or three 'stages', because the shape of rocket engine which works at sea level does not work in the upper, thinner layers of the Earth's atmosphere.

In electronic systems such as a telephone network, we have to match the electrical qualities of the different components in the telephone handset, the cable to the exchange, the switches, the amplifiers and so on. If we don't, we lose electrical energy and create heat. This is called 'impedance matching'.

If you have a hifi, look at the back of the speakers. They will probably say "8Ω" which means 8 Ohms, a unit of electrical resistance. If the speakers are rated at 2Ω, the amplifier will damage them by shoving in too much electrical current. If the speakers are rated at 16Ω, the amplifier will be damaged by the extra work it's having to do to drive the speakers. The inefficient alignment of the components causes energy to be lost as heat, and heat is not good for hifi components.

In chemical processes, we know exactly how much hydrogen and oxygen need to combine to make water. If we have too much of one or the other, it will be wasted.
If you're baking bread, more flour, or more yeast, or more water is not good. You have to combine them in the right proportions, otherwise you get something, but you wouldn't call it bread.
When modelling high performers, it isn't really the person that I'm modelling - it's the system in which they operate.
Imagine that you have an employee who is always at work on time. Always. And they always leave on time. They fulfil the requirements of their contract of employment perfectly. Not a minute more, not a minute less.
If your organisational culture has managers coming in early, and expecting their staff to do the same, and if their attitude is "We stay until the job is done" (which it never is) then our punctual employee will be sidelined as being 'not committed' or 'not having a can-do attitude'.
If your organisation has a customer facing premises or runs services to a timetable then you are setting expectations with customers that they need you to meet. Our punctual employee is the highest performer. They are always there to open up, their services run on time, they switch off at the end of the day and are ready, bright an early, the next.
You might say, "Well, that's obvious, in the first role, they were a square peg in a round hole". OK, great. Quantify that. Write a job description for that. Go and hire ten people who fit your 'round hole' criteria.
The recruitment industry has been operating successfully for decades, they must be getting it right. No, they are not. Recruiters focus on quantifiable skills. They say that they look for cultural fit, but they don't know how to measure it, and if they ask a candidate, "Do you think you'll be a good fit here?" what's the candidate going to say?
We are highly adaptive to our environment. Most people will survive in most organisational cultures. But very few will thrive. This is what defines a high performer.
When I'm modelling and cross referencing high performers, the contrast is not only revealing the difference between high and average performance, it is revealing the cultural rules of the surrounding organisational system. These are the rules which will dictate who is naturally recognised as a high performer, the people who do what they think is right, and do what they usually do, and use their common sense, and it turns out to be precisely aligned with what the managers and leaders in that organisational value, with the organisational reward and recognition systems, and with the operational processes and practices. These people 'hit the ground running', they tend to stay in their jobs for longer and they produce great results with little apparent effort.
Modelling high performers has an interesting side effect: Whatever it says on an organisation's mission statement, or its inspiring posters in the office promoting the value of teamwork, the modelling process reveals, not what the leaders want the culture to be, but what the culture really is.
They might not like it, but it is what it is. If they deny it, they are unconsciously reinforcing it, every day, and they have no control over that.
Culture change begins with realistic culture awareness - and acceptance.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

The new role for L&D professionals in the new normal

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on organisational learning seems to have come in phases, seemingly coinciding with the generalised public response to the situation:

First - Working from home? What fun! It will only be for a couple of weeks.

Second - It's going to be longer than a couple of weeks. When can we get back to normal?

Third - Normal is never coming back. We'd better get used to this.

For L&D professionals, it went something like this:

First - Pause our programs for a couple of weeks. Just reschedule everything.

Second - Quick! Somebody open a Zoom account.

Third - We might never use these classrooms again. We'd better figure out a new way.

For independent learning professionals, the routine was a little different. First, we saw the wave of free webinars on 'normal' topics, as trainers figured this was a good way to keep clients 'warm' until things 'blew over'. Then, we saw the wave of free webinars promising to teach you how to run a webinar. The background noise on LinkedIn seems to have shifted again now as trainers and coaches figure that working online isn't that bad and they can probably reshape their delivery permanently. If we get classrooms back, that will be a nice luxury, but we can manage without them. If everyone else can work online, why can't we?

The public face of the L&D profession is centred around delivering training, however we're not talking about Training and Development, we're talking about Learning and Development. Training is what L&D professionals did when they had the luxury and convenience of training rooms and captive audiences. Training is what L&D professionals do when they're talking into a webcam. Notice that training rooms are not learning rooms. Training is what organisational managers expect L&D professionals to do, because it's an obviously visible thing to do. For the majority of organisations that have no idea how to measure learning, it's easy to measure training. You can count the hours that someone spends reading out PowerPoint slides, but can you measure the organisational impact of what the participants have learned? Too difficult. Too time consuming. We've got work to do.

This pandemic and its effect on working practices, organisational relationships, job security, stress and anxiety is an opportunity to readjust. Yes, yes, I know you've heard that before. Let's look at what it means for the role of a L&D professional.

First, the emphasis is on learning, not training. Learning takes place whether you're training or not. Learning will always take place. Humans are, if nothing else, learning machines. Aligning what they're learning with organisational goals, that's the trick. As I said in my book Change Magic, as a telecoms apprentice I learned how to falsify timesheets and conceal private mileage on the company van by disconnecting the speedometer cable. I don't think that's what my managers intended for me to learn, but that's the downside of apprenticeships - you get it all. Therefore, L&D professionals can do something far more useful than deliver training - they can measure learning. Everyday, practical, real-time learning. Problem solving. As I wrote in Change Magic, the people who are working at an organisation's external interfaces are innovating in every moment of every day. They are facing new situations, they are presented with new customer behaviours, they are problem solving months before the steering committees and focus groups and quality teams get involved. If the people on your front lines weren't innovating in every moment, your organisation would cease to function within weeks, such is the speed of change in customer behaviour. As a L&D professional, you can be capturing this learning, harnessing the power of real time innovation.

I once worked with the L&D team of a large services company which sold, amongst other things, holidays. They had one sales agent who outsold the rest of the team put together. When they looked carefully at what he was doing, he ran the sales script in a different sequence to everyone else. At first, it made no sense, but in the context of the customer environment, it made absolute sense. The L&D team were able to share that learning.

Second, When the pandemic's progress slows down and more people return to work, it won't simply be a matter of opening the doors and turning the heating back on. You will be dealing with mass trauma, grief, symptoms of PTSD, apathy, disengagement, fear, anxiety and stress. Getting people back into the workplace will be the biggest staff induction we've ever seen. Your staff will need time, and they will need space, and care, and the opportunity to share their stories.

The worst case scenario, once the pandemic is under control, is that people rush to forcibly impose the old normal, because that's their comfort zone. People are already queuing to get back into clothing stores. Pretending that everything is back to normal creates a greater disconnect between reality and fantasy, and that's destructive. If we forget the lessons of this crisis, we will be doomed to repeat them. The organisers of the Wimbledon tennis tournament protected themselves against the impact of the pandemic with an insurance policy. Since 2003, the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) has purchased pandemic insurance at a cost of £1.5m per year, totalling around £25m. Money well spent? This year, it has claimed on that policy - £114m.

Prescience? Clairvoyance? Did they see it in the runes? No, they were adversely impacted by the SARS outbreak in 2003 and learned that pandemics are not a one-off event. COVID-19 will not be the last, and organisations who survive, adapt and learn will be in a stronger position next time.

L&D professionals have a valuable role - a new role - in capturing organisational learning. We can capture the stories, the pain, the healing, and integrate all of this learning into the fabric of the organisation. This is the legacy of the L&D profession.

When people used to come back into the office on a Monday morning, what was the first thing they did? They told stories of what they did at the weekend. Like hunters returning to the village, they told of their daring exploits in the garden centre, their triumphs with their new hedge trimmer, the adversities that they rose above as they conquered Sunday lunch at the in-laws. People don't tell those stories to pass the time, or avoid work. These stories are a necessary part of re-establishing the social group, the fabric which holds teams and workplaces together, the vital set of relationships which serve as the foundation for trust, teamwork, communication and, ultimately, productivity. If we deny people the time to share their stories now, we risk mass disengagement, a fundamental breakdown in workplace trust and potentially an economic impact that far exceeds that of the 'lockdown'.

People will come back into work questioning their priorities in life, their working practices, their commutes, their relationships, their identity. Some people can't wait to get back into the office, others never want to come back. Some commentators are saying that we haven't been working from home, we've been attempting to work remotely during a crisis. Certainly there are health and safety considerations. Families who have to take turns using the dining room as a conference venue, people suffering back pain as they crouch over a tiny laptop screen perched on a pile of books, the challenges of home schooling. Tiny laptops are great to take on the train and write a couple of emails. But working on that small screen and keyboard for 3 months, every day? Not everyone has the space at home for an office desk and large monitor. In fact, it's more likely that hardly anyone has that luxury. Managers are still trying, and struggling, to impose their old performance management systems.

We are standing on the edge of a systemic breakdown in trust. Without trust, you have no business. Perhaps the most important way that we rebuild trust is by listening. That doesn't mean that you'll have a couple of focus groups, nod sympathetically and then tick a box. It means that listening becomes the number one priority, every day, until that trust is restored.

Don't rush back into training. Invest time in capturing learning. This is the new role of the L&D professional.

Monday, 20 April 2020

The weirdness of language, and why you can't be in two places at once

In common language, we often talk about concepts such as self-worth, self-care and self-awareness. Yet these concepts cannot exist in the real, physical world. This is often one of the most challenging concepts for students of NLP to get to grips with.

First, a general concept of the relationship between language and experience. We can represent things and events in language which cannot exist in the 'real world'. If we try and represent some of the ideas in our heads in language, we create a stream of metaphors, which cannot be directly understood by a listener. The listener can therefore only interpret the language if we have enough shared life experience through which to translate the metaphors.

For example, if someone isn't listening to me and I say, "He's as deaf as a post" then a native English speaker will probably understand what that means. However a younger, non-native English speaker might interpret 'post' ambiguously. Their first thought might not be of a fence post, instead a social media post might seem more familiar. How can someone be as deaf as a Facebook post? And yet, in trying to interpret the concept of 'deaf' you are already thinking about how people on Facebook don't listen to each other, how their posts are broadcasts of their opinions, and so on. Through an attempt to understand each other, we have created a new metaphor.

Much of our spoken, and indeed our written language is ambiguous. I can say a word in one way, but spell it in multiple ways, and a word that is spelled in the same way can have multiple meanings. In the 'Milton Model' of NLP, we call these 'phonological ambiguities' and they are used to induce a trance state. Ambiguous words such as sea/see/si or weight/wait need context before they 'make sense'. Other words derive their context from the knowledge of the speaker, such as:

Cat (an animal)
Cat (a type of boat, catamaran)
Cat (a device that reduces vehicle emissions, catalytic converter)
Cat (a character in the TV series Red Dwarf)
Cat (a steel cable used to carry overhead electricity, catenary wire)
When a garage mechanic tells you that he's going to replace your cat, that's a very different meaning to the same words spoken by a vet.

Therefore, we make sense of such ambiguous metaphors by relating the sound or the written word to our expectations, which are a mixture of context and previous experience. This is how we are able to make sense of language which, when we look carefully at it, makes no sense at all.

I think you understand that it is not logically possible to carry yourself, because you have no point of leverage with which to pick your own body up off the floor. Therefore the phrase "he carries himself well" cannot be a description of a primary sensory experience, it must be a distortion, a judgement. It is a metaphor for how someone walks and acts. A child, hearing this for the first time, might be confused, and might ask what it means. Alternatively, the child may notice whatever seems salient at that point and attach that observation to the statement. Through this, we each learn what 'professionalism' means, and we each have our own unique interpretation. A manager in a company I once worked for would get very frustrated when sales people didn't show enough professionalism. Everyone interpreted the word differently. It turned out that, to him, it meant dark blue suit, white shirt, dark tie.

Let's assume that language follows a predictable and consistent structure of 'SVO' or 'Subject Verb Object'  or 'actor -> action -> thing acted upon', in English at least - many other languages are SOV, the subject always comes first.

Therefore, every statement relates to something with agency, another thing (a different thing), and a change over time observed taking place between them. According to Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker, every language in the world follows the same structure, so we might from that assume that every human being observes physical change in the world in the same way, and describes it in the same way, at least in terms of structure.

We might say that the subject always comes first, so the entity that has intention is the first thing that we comment on, and that is usually the speaker, "I". Some languages omit the opening "I", and if the subject is omitted, it is assumed to be the speaker. "Going to the shops" means "I am going to the shops", for example.

If we substitute a different subject/object in our carrying example, based on the above assumption, e.g. the suitcase carries itself, we can again observe that this action can't exist in the world. A suitcase cannot carry itself.

I can imagine a marketing agency coming up with some kind of suitcase with an electric motor and advertising it as 'the suitcase that carries itself' but that is obviously a distortion, the suitcase is not carrying itself, it is rolling on motorised wheels. Carrying is the human action being replaced by the wheels. The case is not carrying itself, but it is doing something as a substitute for being carried.

Now if we substitute 'action' for 'carry' based on the assumption that the above structure always applies, we get 'thing 1 action thing 2', e.g. the suitcase acts upon the suitcase. When you picture this abstract example, you see two different suitcases, yes? And you replace 'acts upon' with something that one suitcase is doing to another.

How about 'the person acts upon the person'?

Again, you see two different people, yes?

How about 'the person cares for the person'?

'I' and 'myself' or 'me' are self references that can occupy either the subject or object position, but not both in a single verb structure, simply because that would require the same person, at the same time, to be both the actor and the thing acted upon.

"I carried the suitcase"

"The suitcase carried me"

Both examples can be described in the physical world. I carried myself cannot.

The laws of physics exist in the real world, yet in the subjective, distorted world of my internal reality, I make judgements and descriptions of events which cannot take place in reality, they can only take place in my imagination. Those laws don't change depending on what word we're using. The structure of experience for "I hit him" doesn't change when we change the word to "I hit me". We can change the word, we can distort the meaning to make it fit, to 'make sense' of it, but that doesn't change the laws of physics.

In computer programming, I can say "The document is sent by magical fairies to the printer" but that doesn't make it happen. The following piece of computer code would make something happen:

print "Hello";

Well, I said that, and my printer isn't printing. What the hell? It didn't work. I said print and my printer doesn't work. Nothing is happening. It's broken.

A programmer might say, "Well, that's not what print means, print means send to the standard output, if you mean print on your printer, that's more complicated you need to...." etc.

The key is reproduceability. Could we write a software program that will always work, will always do what it is asked to do? For example, add two numbers and display the result. Regardless of the numbers I feed in, will it always work? Or does it only work with some numbers, with the 'right' numbers? Does it sometimes not work at all, or display the wrong result? And does it then say, "Well, that's not what I meant".

No, if we write a program that allows the user to input two numbers, and the program then adds those numbers and displays the result, the function of the program would be consistent, reliable, and wouldn't change depending on what numbers the user entered.

Our goal with modelling in NLP is reproduceability. What are the conditions under which a person would always get the intended result, regardless of input?

Could we write a program to care for someone? Yes, if we very strictly define first what that means. If we know what 'print' means, we can get a predictable result. If we know what 'care' means then again, it's predictable. Could we therefore program a medical robot to provide care? To do everything that a human nurse could do? Probably, yes. But would the robot 'care' in the way that a human does? Would the robot experience caring? Let's assume 'no'. But then, why would we want the human nurse to 'care'? We want him or her to provide care, but I'm sure that many very good nurses, doctors and vets actually don't care about their patients, because that would make the job far too traumatic for them. We talking about the caring professions, but we need to focus on the actions of care, not the intentions.

Let's try another example, "I made myself a cup of tea". If I observed you, I would see you 'making' a cup of tea. I would not see your intention. What if you made it with the intention of drinking it, then someone else drank it? An observer might say "He made tea for someone else" because that was the observable sequence of events. Intention is not visible to an observer. The phrase I often hear at home is, "I was going to do that" or "I was about to do that". I can only observe action, not intention. It would be more accurate to say, "I had a thought about doing that but didn't put that thought into action".

Your intention cannot be observed, and so only exists in the way you compare experiences to form judgements. Eating organic soup is 'self care', whereas eating chocolate is not, for example. On the other hand, eating anything at all, whatever it is, is surely 'self care'. Breathing is 'self care'.

So does care mean what I think it means? Or does it mean something else? Is care a way of saying "takes care of my physical and emotional needs as if I am valuable"? And if that is the case, can I say, "I care about I" or "Me cares about me"? I can say it, but does it means what I think it means? How about "I care about me".

If we're picky we could say that I and me are two different words and therefore different things. I can act. Me is passive. I sits in the subject position, with free will. Me sits in the object position, as the passive recipient of an action. We therefore need to split "I care for me" into its physical world sequence: "I care for x and x cares for me". Does that not describe a normal relationship? Because two people are now involved, both can care and be cared for at the same time. When we take away person x, when they are no longer available to care, and we try to replace that by looping the sequence internally, we loop the program back in on itself. In computers, that will usually cause a crash or a race condition. "A race condition is an undesirable situation that occurs when a device or system attempts to perform two or more operations at the same time, but because of the nature of the device or system, the operations must be done in the proper sequence to be done correctly."

Perhaps I and me are two different entities. Perhaps I is the intent, the actor, and me is the recipient, the sensor. But they are inseparable within us.

How about "I feed myself". We say it about babies, because as with the self-carrying suitcase, the baby learns to do something that the parent had previously done. For a few weeks after the baby first grabs the spoon, the proud parent says, "She's feeding herself now!" but as soon as the novelty wears off, that changes to, "She's having her breakfast".

The baby is eating. The child is eating. The adult is going out for dinner. I can't imagine that you have your lunch at work and people say, "Aw, look, you're feeding yourself". Your first reaction on reading these words is to imagine it. After that comes the tension of being mocked, because that is one interpretation of the scenario, one explanation for why someone would say that, and finally comes the joke to break the tension and restore control, to put I back in the subject position.
The problem in all of this really arises when we take a higher level judgement, based on "when I felt cared for in the past, these are the kinds of things that someone did for me, and when someone doesn't do those things, they don't care about me" and we then directly translate that abstract, distracted commentary back into primary, concrete, sensory reality. You only have to spend 5 minutes on Facebook to see people arguing over such subjective distortions of reality. And to reiterate the point I made in the group, counsellors and therapists are trained to interrupt people from getting lost in their distortions and ground the client back into "What actually happened? What did you see and hear? How did you feel? What must your experience or expectation be for you to feel that way? Are there other ways to feel? Could it have meant something else?" and so on.

Where does all of this leave us with self-worth, self-care and self-awareness?

You cannot value yourself, because you cannot be both the valuer and the thing being valued at the same time. Every major religion in the world seems to advocate the same message; if you want to know your worth, do something valuable for others. If you want to feel loved, love others. If you want to feel cared for, care others. Charity, giving and helping seem wired into our basic social instincts.

How can you care for yourself? If you cared for yourself, you wouldn't need others to care for you. Perhaps self-care is a substitute for being cared for. Which would you prefer? A mutually supportive relationship is one in which I care for you and you care for me; we take care of each other. You physically cannot 'watch your own back', and every police, military and superhero movie has a theme of people being responsible for each other's safety.

The self-help industry (don't get me started on that one) promotes self-awareness. I put it to you that there can be no self-awareness, there can only be awareness of others. By being aware of others, and the impact that we have on others, we become more aware of our effect on the world.

The simple concept which I have attempted to explain here is that the physical world contains objects which interact, and as humans we perceive those interactions as taking place in time, and we describe those interactions using language. Language distorts what we have observed, but those distortions cannot change the physical world, even though we often pretend that they do. We think that ignoring a problem will make it go away. We think that hiding a mistake will correct it. We think that arguing over religion and politics actually changes anything.

We can, of course, change the world, but to do that, we have to be much more specific about what we actually intend to do, and then we have to do it.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

There is Now or there is Know

Humans are compelled to structure time. We might even say that humans create time, through the way that we perceive sequences of cause and effect. Without a human mind to observe the universe, the universe exists only in the now. It has no past or future.

Through millennia of scientific research, driven by our need to structure time and to understand ‘why?’, we have come to understand the nature of the physical world. We understand the laws of physics well enough to send probes to other planets. We understand chemical processes well enough to combine elements and estimate the passage of geological time. Detectives will look at a crime scene in the present and deduce what must have happened in the past. A fingerprint says that someone was here. How did that person get here? Where did  they come from? Where did they go next?

Our ability to structure time creates two illusions which we commonly call ‘past’ and ‘future’.
Just as the rocks in a cliff face contain a memory of the passage of millions of years of time, our minds and bodies are built upon layers of foundations created by past events. Those past events are not happening now. Your lifetime of worry and laughter isn’t happening now. The wrinkles around your eyes only exist now. We can deduce what muscle movements caused those wrinkles. By examining the structure of the connections in your brain we could even deduce what experience led to those muscle movements.

Your mind is a map of reality – your reality, up until this moment. Everything that you have seen, heard, felt, experienced through your many senses is encoded in the connections between decision making cells which we call neurons. If you cannot begin to imagine how your entire life experience is stored in this way then you are beginning to understand how bad humans are at handling very big numbers. You have 90 billion neurons, each with up to 10,000 connections to neighbouring neurons. You have more connections in your brain than there are observable stars in the universe. But you cannot imagine such a large number, and so you find it hard to believe that your brain is nothing more than a densely packed flowchart, a decision making matrix that consistently and predictably takes whatever sensory input is presented and generates a motor output; an action.

Everyone human on this planet (and orbiting around it) is consistent, habitual, ritualistic. Except you. You are the only unique, free-thinking, rational member of the species. You can see others’ habits. You can see how your friends set off the same sequence of events when they  compete for status. You can see your parents repeating the same arguments, over and over again. You know what loved ones will say before they say it. But you? You are the master of your destiny, you are the only person on this planet who is truly unique, who lives in the moment. And when you think of it like that, it doesn’t seem plausible, does it?

How can we explain this disparity between what you see and what others see? It’s really very simple – you are the only person in the world who has never seen and will never see you. You exist only in the now. You are reacting to this moment only. You are not aware of what past events have led you to this moment.

Your family, friends and colleagues see things differently. They remember the last time you reacted this way, and the time before, and the time before. They notice similarities, connect them together and declare that you are “always doing this”. “Doing what?” you ask in frustration. Your consistency is, of course, what gives you friends, colleagues and family. People who are unpredictable are hard to live with, they make us feel unsafe, and we operate from fear rather than security. If you’ve ever known someone who had a ‘quick temper’ then you know what this means and how this feels.
Imagine if you could not replay your memories. Imagine if your life experience was encoded into your mind and body but you could not directly access it. You would still make the same decisions, but you wouldn’t be able to explain why. You would know how to make tea or sing your favourite song, but you wouldn’t know how you know. No doubt you have heard of cases of amnesia in which people, as a result of physical or psychological trauma, can remember how to get to their house but can’t remember where they live.

One reason for this interesting phenomena is that we don’t possess just one type of memory. For example, you have a memory for remembering sequences of events, and you have a memory for remembering actions. This enables you to remember physical skills long after you’ve forgotten how you learned them.

When I was a teenager, I played the flute in a concert band. I stopped playing when I started work, and 30 years later I rejoined the same band following a reunion event. Every few years, I had found my flute and played it briefly, so I knew that I could still play. However, at the first rehearsal I attended after rejoining, I realised something that worried me – I could no longer read music. I saw patterns of lines and dots on the page and I had no idea what they meant. The band was still playing some of the same music from 30 years ago, and if I knew the music I could play along without having to think about it. But for music that I hadn’t played before, I had to go back to the very first thing I learned about reading music aged 11; FACE and Every Good Boy Deserves Food, the mnemonics for remembering the notes on a musical stave.

If I looked at a black dot on the middle line, I had no idea what note it represented. I had to count – Every, Good, Boy. B. If the subsequent notes followed the first with only slight changes then I could play for a while, but if the notes jumped to begin a new theme, I was back to counting.

It was as if my conscious, thinking, rational mind had completely forgotten how to play music, but my unconscious, unthinking, irrational mind still knew. What was actually happening was that the motor movements to press my left thumb and forefinger together to produce a B were still wired into my motor cortex. My brain still had the ability to produce the same output, but its ability to decode the input was missing.

Over the next few weeks, my ability to read the notes in the stave came back. After that, I relearned how to read the notes that sit above and below the stave, as well as being able to decode sharps and flats, the half notes that sit between the 7 main notes. This is trickier than it sounds because, for example, C sharp is the same note as D flat, and sometimes the composer will favour sharps, and sometimes flats, and the player needs to be able to quickly switch between the two. Because of the odd arrangement of the musical scale, C flat is the same as B. My weeks of boring practice of scales and arpeggios at age 11 suddenly made sense. I couldn’t read music, but I could play it, and I retained an intuitive sense of how musical notes fit together.

The process of distant knowledge becoming increasingly within my grasp was fascinating. After a few months, I was a far better player than I had ever been as a teenager.

Amnesia is a theme often explored in literature. For example, in the Jason Bourne series of films, Bourne learns that he has self-defensive skills but he can’t remember how he acquired them. He can’t even remember who he is. Over time, he follows a series of clues that reveal information about his past. He even begins to remember fragments of it.

In the Marvel comic books and films, Dr Bruce Banner can’t remember what he does when he transforms into the Hulk, and the Hulk is unaware of Banner. You might recognise this as a modern interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde, but where and when did you first learn about Jekyll and Hyde? Did you read it in a book? Did someone use the phrase to describe an unpredictable person? Did you see the old black and white film? When did you first hear your name? How did you learn how to make tea, or slice bread, or open a packet of biscuits?

You know that you know these things because you can perform the actions. You might even make up a story to explain how you know. But even without that story, you still know.

Imagine life without past and future. Imagine being aware of only the now, and acting from the foundations of your experiential knowledge. This would be a life free from worry, and perhaps also free from dreams.

Fortunately, you can dream, and you can hope and you can aspire. You can build on your foundation of knowledge. And yet, you would do well to remember that the stories you tell yourself about past and future are merely stories, created to comfort yourself, created to present the illusion of choice, the illusion that you are the only unique, rational person, that you are not a mere creature of habit. The truth is that you don’t really know how you know what you know, but you know that you know it. The evidence is in your actions, and through your actions you touch the world, you leave a trail of evidence for future generations to follow.

Focus on now. Build on what you know. Trust others to follow.